Syrian Humanitarians

How Global Affairs Canada can ensure delivery of Canadian humanitarian assistance in Syria in an exceptionally dynamic period in the Turkey cross-border humanitarian hub

by Aug 6, 2017

Syria Relief staff reconstructing a water network in rural north Syria, July 26, 2017. Faces blurred for safety. Syria Relief

Field Dispatches

Field Dispatches are the insights from Canadians serving across the globe at the forefront of foreign policy, international development and civil society.

In early 2016, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) announced plans to spend 1.11 billion Canadian dollars across the coming three years on humanitarian and refugee care capacity building in the region of Iraq and Syria. Based upon my experience as a Canadian humanitarian professional working in Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, I have observed that local Syrian NGOs are essential to achieving GAC’s objectives for humanitarian assistance in Syria. However, amidst a period of high uncertainty and change in the Northern Syria Humanitarian Coordination Hub, GAC should do more to work with Syrian humanitarian NGOs.

The Importance of Syrian NGOs

Born out of necessity, and now vital to the quality and longevity of humanitarian and re-development assistance in Syria, a community of Syrian NGOs operate life-saving missions in Syria from a coordination hub in South-East Turkey. They do the heavy lifting and risky work of delivering life-saving assistance in Syria at the behest of numerous international NGOs and foreign government donors. Less known to the outside world is that many international NGOs – which as a group spent 213.4 million USD on humanitarian aid in Syria in 2016 – did so without offices or staff inside that country. Instead, in many cases, the work was subcontracted to local Syrian “partner” NGOs which maintain an office in South-Eastern Turkey. Given an environment severely repressive of civil society in Syria, these NGOs didn’t exist prior to the war. As such, most have only sprung up since 2012, and have become a linchpin for providing humanitarian assistance in an environment in Syria which has proven excessively hostile for many international NGOs and largely inaccessible for foreign NGO workers.

The recent years have been eventful and full of crowning achievements for Syrian NGOs operating from Turkey. Several of these organizations are now managing between 10 and 20 million USD per year in lifesaving humanitarian projects.[i] Most impressively, however, the operations and the design of programmes and projects have become much more sophisticated, with significant innovation from Syrian humanitarians. A stark break away from earlier days when these Syrian organizations looked more like logistics companies, expert only in delivering packages of emergency supplies.

Among these feature innovations, a Syrian NGO led the way to install solar panels at their own hospitals which were facing operational risks due to electricity availability[ii] and a Syrian NGO introduced some of the first vocational training and agriculture extension programmes in the conflict environment of Syria, where despite struggles to maintain a livelihood, any sense of normalcy is interrupted by daily aerial bombings. Even more than this, a Syrian NGO brought some of the first comprehensive gender-based violence and sexual gender-based violence protection in a uniquely Syrian model by incorporating it with women’s health care services. Without this innovation in approach, social workers and health care professionals would simply never meet the women in need of these services as the issue is simply too taboo to be accepted as an area of discussion and service provision outside of the sphere of women’s health. These innovations of recent years have demonstrated how local Syrian NGOs and Syrian humanitarians have unique knowledge which can greatly contribute to the quality and effectiveness of the relief and redevelopment effort.

Syrian NGO offices are filled with people bringing valuable knowledge of pre-existing public services and technical expertise. Doctors, civil engineers, social workers, teachers, agricultural engineers- everything one needs to stabilize a society in crisis, one can find in the leading Syrian NGOs in Turkey.

However, putting any of these technical experts into a job in a humanitarian organization for the first time is akin to dropping them into a maze. Only with the right coaching and acclimatizing to the NGO-institutional donor bureaucracy can those talented individuals be built into much needed lasting and innovative leaders in the humanitarian response. Enabling this takes a good deal of continuous “capacity building” work over time, in one form or another.

Local NGOs are the first to respond to a crisis and the last to stop – they will keep working even when there are no funds and everything seems impossible. The unique ability of local Syrian organizations to contribute to a humanitarian and stabilization response and their long term role is something that should always be emphasized. Although they’ve risen to prominence partly on account of the dangers and regulations preventing foreign NGO workers from entering into Syria, it is the local organizations that are truly in this for the long run, with the potential to transform their role into rebuilding the country and serving society long after the end of the conflict. They are the faces that communities trust deeply; they are perceived as members of the affected society themselves, and that changes everything. To accomplish anything with a lasting impact at a higher scale, certain levels of cooperation are needed from host communities and local authorities. This requires that implementing organizations have the legitimacy and humbleness of a local NGO. If the goal is economic stabilization and redevelopment, and for communities to gain a sense of purpose and ability to do more than just survive, it takes enormous personal commitments from local stakeholders. Those commitments will be more reliable if the NGO is local.

This is part of a multi-faceted psychological effect on individuals and communities who receive charitable assistance. The hand-ups not hand-outs paradigm doesn’t say enough. Foreign actors providing foreign assistance unearths too many insecurities and suspicions among local communities to be reliably effective in providing support with a lasting effect, while also maintaining the dignity and sense of self-worth among the aid receiving communities. People need to feel empowered as individuals and as communities when they receive charitable assistance, and the faces of foreigners and foreign handouts will always create setbacks for community empowerment.

While it can be said that local NGOs may be subject to biases or even political affiliations in a country in conflict, presenting a risk to fair beneficiary selection and aid diversion, it is not a risk that always materializes, and international NGOs face similar threats. In fairness, there are some aspects of a response to an emergency that international NGOs – for the time being – can do better than local ones, especially when it comes to quickly accessible and fungible funds. However the advantages in community relationships and long term impact offered by local NGOs ultimately offers a unique advantage, making local NGO partnerships an essential component of any emergency response or development programme.

What Global Affairs Canada Should Consider

What can GAC and its funding portfolio for Syria do with this information? In my experience working for a local Syrian NGO, as a Canadian, I was proud to have the opportunity to implement projects with my team in Syria which were paid for by the Canadian public. The activities were chosen by ourselves, as well as budgeted and planned in consultation with affected community members. Our supportive international NGO partner enabled our access to these much needed humanitarian funds through their historic relationship with the Canadian development funding offices – now GAC – aided by their expert skills in preparing proposals for government contracts, and through guarantees that they would bring our quarterly reports up to Canadian government standards before submitting them to GAC. They also offered GAC the assurances that if we – the Syrian NGO partner – were unable to deliver the project, they would assume responsibility to hand it over to another capable local NGO.

GAC’s humanitarian funding for Syria, 49.2 million USD last year, like most Western states’ international humanitarian or development assistance funds, has an immense barrier built around it: lengthy and onerous project proposal requirements, locally inaccessible or non-transparent funding announcements, as well as a low risk appetite and low field management capacity. All of these prevent local Syrian NGOs from being able to receive GAC funds directly any time in the near future. In the Syrian remote management context in particular, the primary value of many of the INGOs in recent years is that they are experienced at navigating this bureaucratic maze, while many can’t facilitate the humanitarian assistance themselves physically. If local NGOs are preferred for even just certain types of interventions, then GAC could significantly increase its contributions to the longevity of Syrian civil society as well as the cost-effectiveness and quality of its contributions by looking for opportunities to cut out INGO interlocutors and grant directly to local NGOs in Turkey and other countries bordering Syria. The UK Department for International Development (DfID) began to explore this option last year, announcing their interest to fund local NGOs directly in local NGO forums and providing training on how to write DfID proposals in Turkey.

A similar policy shift from GAC would be extremely prudent as more international NGOs are finding no alternative but to depart from Turkey amidst a sensitive political climate. The recent spike in intolerance from the Turkish government towards NGOs providing assistance into Syria from Turkey paints the picture of an uncertain future for several of the largest international NGOs currently leading a large segment of the humanitarian response in Syria, some delivering amounts approaching and surpassing 50 million USD worth of humanitarian assistance annually. This becomes exceptionally concerning when one considers that due to territorial divides in the conflict, the only location from which humanitarian assistance can be delivered to civilians in large areas of Aleppo and the entirety of Idleb province in the north of Syria is from the Northern Syria Humanitarian Hub in Turkey.

Realistically, local NGOs are unlikely to be able to attract and sustain the unique human resources required to access funds from major Western institutional donors according to current proposal standard expectations. The proposal development skill-barrier puts the burden onto the NGO implementer to be able to plan, analyse and write with equal capacity to a government ministry. The UNOCHA administered humanitarian pool fund, which channels substantial funds to local NGOs to implement humanitarian projects directly, in 2016 did not receive any contributions from Canada towards its 112.4 million USD budget for the year. In contrast, the government of the United Kingdom contributed more than 28 million USD in the same period. There are other major stakeholder governments who do not regularly contribute to the humanitarian pooled fund and instead fund INGOs directly, namely the United States. While of course there may be publicity or diplomatic gains by directing a country’s humanitarian assistance resources through a single channel, to do so at the risk of failing to support the resilience of local humanitarian actors is very ill advised in the current circumstances.

Granting directly to local Syrian NGOs not only better ensures the stability and longevity of local humanitarian actors and civil society in the tumultuous years before the conflict is resolved and the extremely uncertain years following any resolution. It would also reduce the portion of funds spent unnecessarily on the costly staffing of what are essentially the non-profit version of international holding companies, the international NGOs relying on local partners to implement GAC grants. It would also better deliver on the diplomatic aims of GAC’s humanitarian assistance by allowing for a direct relationship between Syrian civil society and the government of Canada.


Often times in development and humanitarian work we are required to pause briefly after many hard-won achievements and reconsider everything about the way we are working, asking “is my programme still impactful and cost-effective?”, “What will my programme need to be next month when the entire situation changes?”. GAC and other international donors have an important opportunity for reflection on their approach to humanitarian partners in Syria and Turkey right now. To not do so is riskier than maintaining the current approach. It only takes a matter of months without funds and local NGOs will have to fold up, and lives which could have been saved will be lost inside Syria.

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Recommendation 1

GAC should begin contributing funds to the UN OCHA administered Humanitarian Fund which typically has lower barriers for providing funding to local Syrian NGOs for specific humanitarian projects.

Recommendation 2

GAC should develop an initiative to engage directly with Syrian NGOs as recipients of GAC humanitarian funds. It may require different human resource capacity in the diplomatic mission and will require new methods of engaging local NGOs as bidders for calls for proposals in order to reduce barriers in their drafting of proposals.

Recommendation 3

GAC should explore additional innovative ways to mitigate against the risk of a short and more restricted future in Turkey for the high capacity international NGOs upon which the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Idleb and Aleppo is primarily dependent, both as interlocutors between funding agencies and local NGOs and as humanitarian service providers.


[i] Syria Relief, Bihar Relief Organization, Shafak, and Khayr Charity Foundation for example.

[ii] On average, people in Syria are experiencing blackouts 16-18 hours per day (2017 Humanitarian Needs Overview: Syrian Arab Republic, 35).

Note: All opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect, nor should they be inferred as, those of his employers, nor the Canadian International Council.


Virgil Haden-Pawlowski
Virgil is an international public policy professional with expertise in development and humanitarian programme design and management. In his recent field positions he has held the role of Programme Director as well as Programme Development and Quality Coordinator. He has a professional focus on interventions which can have sustained and cumulative impact over time, and also which reduce risk of climate change impacts to communities. He has worked in the aim of enhancing local community, civil society, and government empowerment, and in support of ensuring knowledge and professional skill transfer to local actors. He has worked in the design and implementation of projects in all humanitarian sectors, and maintains a professional expertise on humanitarian planning in Syria.